May 2017, it smells of lilac flowers in the courtyard of Auschwitz I. It looks strangely calm and empty there, everything seems symetrical with the blockhouses and their bricks, the trees. There are many school groups and visitors, I picked a visit in French and our guide has a lovely polish accent. When we left Krakow, it was raining but then the sun shone.
The first part of the visit happens in Auschwitz I, which was the original concentration camp, but a couple of years later they brought in so many people that they needed to build a bigger camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was also a third one that no longer exists.
Auschwitz I has been turned into a museum and it is very intense. The pictures, the belongings taken away from so many people, the remains of German paperwork about the camp and the senseless extermination of humans, the experimentation blockhaus, the trials with Zyklon B, the execution wall…the list goes on, they all hit you in the soul.
In a corridor I remember feeling extremely moved while walking and looking at faces on the walls, on one side the portraits of women, on the other of men. What was shocking was their obvious miserable state of health, the shaved hair but mostly the dates of arrival and of death. I realised most of them had been killed in 1942, before they opened the second camp. Some of them were very young, still teenagers.
If you want to visit the museum you will need a guide (otherwise you cannot enter) so I would recommend booking a tour in Krakow beforehand, otherwise you might stay stuck waiting for a visit with a guide. I went with See Krakow and my French speaking guide’s name was Teresa Wrona, she was fantastic.
Ever since I read If This Is a Man written by Italian and Jewish writer Primo Levi (he was put in Monowitz camp, the one that no longer exists), I have always wanted to visit the camps as a thank-you and in his honor for having found the courage to speak out and write a book after experiencing the most horrible moments of his life. He killed himself many years later.
As a pupil and a student, as a human being, I have always been interested in learning more about human nature and I watched countless documentaries about the war and the Shoah. The Jewish genocide (but also gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped people, political prisoners and all the other murders of civilians who were “destroyed” through the Machiavellian nazi plans) was obviously the most shocking one out of many other genocides. Simply because more than a million people were killed in those camps. I found out that a great number of those killed came from Hungary and Poland, the French Jews were mostly sent from Drancy by trains. I was bombarded with a great amount of numbers, dates and information but it all came down to this: an abomination. And as our guide repeated several times, the Allies knew about what was happening but the main concern was to win the war and saving people in the camps was not a priority. It makes you wonder if humanity ever evolves when you think of refugee camps nowadays…
Auschwitz-Birkenau is immense and looked like a factory to me. The crematoriums were blown up by the Germans right before they fled and forced thousands of people to walk to their death in a last effort to exterminate them and hide evidence (Levi’s bestfriend was one of them and was shot in the woods). However you can see the remains of the underground part of the building were they gazed people. They told them they would get a shower and of course never told the truth. The German nazi officers were very organised and as the years went by they knew how to dehumanise and keep everyone calm. There were suicides on the electrical fences or a few people who escaped. There are many many stories, all different. Sometimes a woman would be saved from the selection (to the gaz chamber) because a German doctor thought she was attractive. All these anecdotes show how insane and unfair the whole process was.
It is very difficult to imagine what life was like there. Simone Veil said that when she was in Auschwitz there was no grass, only soil, if there had been grass they would have eaten it. When I was there it was covered in grass and flowers, bucolic as the guide stated. However it is very important to visit the baracks and the latrines to see what kind of horrifying torments they had to go through. And very few survived in the end. The conditions of living were simply despicable.
I think the role of Auschwitz is indeed to create a shrine of remembrance but also to give proof that it happened, almost everything is intact and has stayed as it was then (unless it was destroyed or the wooden planks were given away to the Polish people so they could build new homes at the end of the war, hence barracks that have disappeared and only chimneys remain). The train tracks next to which hundreds of thousands of people were selected to live or die, the remaining train wagon that looks like a freight car, the barbed wires, the miradors, the few pictures, all of these are there to remind people about this shameful part of history, when people decided to destroy other people out of ideology but also because of power and hate driven men.
The rooms full of human hair and thousands of shoes are very impressive and in which you must remain silent in order to respect the departed, leave you speechless. I was staring at this pair of red woman’s shoes, summer sandals and I imagined that the lady in a summer dress wearing those shoes in happy times probably did not make it. There was also a braid of blond hair that struck you out of all the dark mounts of hair and it was extremely violent to see.
I actually wondered why I didn’t visit Auschwitz earlier in my life, it is a part of history that should be shown to every school kid. Many children/teenagers were around that day. I think last year the number of tourists exceeded 2 millions and that’s a good thing, because people should know.
To conclude this article that could never cover all the feelings I had in Auschwitz, I will quote George Santayana “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And in my opinion, human nature tends to forget too easily…